Sexism in advertising media

Social IssuesWomen's Issues

  • Author Bunny Tawanda Chigudu
  • Published August 6, 2021
  • Word count 1,417


The incidence of sexism in advertising has gradually increased over the years amongst African women or non-white people. Previously, this had not been an uncommon feature in the West among the fairer white sex. Today, African female models are more frequently sexually depicted in brand advertisements than are males. There is a growing interest from foreign owned companies advertising their brands using black African models clad in suggestive attire. Female models are depicted as suggestively dressed while males are unlikely to be portrayed likewise. Women have increasingly become objects of display. The new enlightenment worldview is that women are totally defined by their bodies in a way they had not been in the past. In advertisements, body orientations of women as they sit or stand are sexualized. Their projections are suggestive and alluring. For example, they are made to pose in ways that seem strangely erotic and emphasizing the areas of their bodies (breasts, hips, thighs, legs) that they were culturally socialized to conceal, be afraid of and ashamed of. In Africa, certain body parts, whether female or male, are ordered by cultural norms to remain subdued and covered. The gendering of bodies is thus a social process. The importation and adoption of western values in our culture have created a natural experiment in social change. Of interest in this write up is not the changing nature of sexuality in advertising (another area of interest to researchers) but the apparent politics of gender stereotyping and sexual objectification of women in advertising media. The media reiterate the cultural image of women as ornamental objects who must attract men to be valuable. The media insinuate some of these messages into our consciousness at every turn. Not only do media induce us to think we should measure up to artificial standards, but they encourage us to see normal bodies and bodily functions as pathologies.

To begin, Shulamith Firestone (1972) argues that sexism is fundamentally about seeing women as sexualized bodies available to men. Both Friedan (1965) and Greer (1970) concur that women are encouraged, cajoled and sometimes coerced into making their bodies conform to male dictated ideals. One area of feminist protest is around sexual objectification of women in the media. Sexist advertising promotes images of women as sexually unrestrained, always sexually accessible to men. The use of sexual imagery in advertising is downgrading women. It creates and sustains unrealistic images and stereotypes of women. Several studies conducted on advertising show a greater percentage of males appearing demurely dressed than the scantily dressed females. In Africa, is this growing phenomenon a Westernization of African ideals or a celebration of womens success and liberation from the strictures of patriarchy?. In any case, the portrayal of indigenous African women as consumers of colonial products produces and justifies the imperialist worldview of Victorians. For many non-white women, there is a constant battle to maintain self-worth within a world that judges them in relation to white notions of beauty and femininity. This leads to black peoples loss of independence and ability to self-define. Therefore, the media create and maintain power differences within a culture based on visual cues.

Through advertising, women are inclined to play a role in their own exploitation. Womens worth becomes quite literally tied to the physical attractiveness. According to Lorber and Moore (2007), beauty, as defined by western, heterosexual, white male standards, is a commodity-something that they may leverage for opportunities and benefits. Because sex sells products (Muro, 1989), sexual and erotic images are the single most prominent characteristic of advertising. While the majority of media communication may not be pornographic, it does echo in somewhat muted forms the predominant themes of pornography such as sex and male domination of women. Wolf (1990) suggests that the images of women used by the media present women as sex objects to be consumed by what Laura Mulvey (2009) calls the 'male gaze` in Visual and other Pleasures. The gaze is the realization of being seen and interpreted by others, and adjusting ones conduct accordingly. The male gaze is when women feel observed, assessed and judged primarily on their physical appearance by men. Women are therefore subject to the standards set via the male gaze. Mulvey was among the most influential of feminists to extend the concept of the gaze to the oppressive effects of society and socialization on women. She argued that the portrayal of women is primarily aesthetic in purpose. They are presented in ways that appeal to others, notably heterosexual men. French intellectual Jacques Lacan (2006), influenced by Freudian-based psychology, noted that the realization that others may gaze upon us often facilitates greater self-consciousness and that this may be both unsettling and anxiety producing. French writer Jean-Paul Sartre (2003), in Being and Nothingness, also discusses the notion of subjectivity, or the condition of being a subject of anothers consciousness or awareness.

Radical feminists feel very strongly that the media reproduces patriarchy. The media deliberately dupe women into believing in the beauty myth. They should conform to what is a male image of what it is to be proper woman in terms of good looks, sexiness and ideal shape. This creates a form of false-class consciousness. Tuchman et al (1978) refer to this as 'the symbolic annihilation of women’. The sexual imagery also epitomizes a prurient racism, which makes black women into objects of white sexual curiosity and exploitation. Racist sexism has gained much of its weight in the service of economic gain through capitalist expansion. Sexualizing women as objects of heterosexual male desire is assumed to be most aesthetically pleasing, and by extension, more profitable. Focus is directed on certain parts of womens bodies, namely those associated with sexual appeal (for example, breasts, buttocks, legs). The consequences on womens perceptive in the wider society are both interactional and relational. Women become accustomed to hegemonic views of their physicality. They learn that talent, skill, knowledge, ability and experience are secondary to physical attractiveness (Lorber and Moore, 2007).

 The media, through advertisements, presents a particular beauty ideal, that is, the idea that women should strive for beauty through which they transmit the strong ideological message that woman should treat their bodies as a project in constant need of improvement. The women are represented as exotic. Those whomever best embodies normative definitions of beauty (thin, yet curvaceous, slender/toned, youthful) are more likely to be hired and highlighted in advertising. Those chosen, however, conform most closely to western standards of beauty. Others are left chasing the aesthetic ideal or settling with less desirable options. Demographically, older women are not only under-represented in media but also are represented inaccurately. Media consistently show fewer older women presumably because advertising agents are aware that our culture worships youth and beauty in women. Elder women are portrayed as sick, dependent, fumbling, and passive, images not borne out of reality.

On set, beauty is artificially augmented using special lighting effects and skin whitening cosmetics to conceal blemishes. The saying goes, "the pale is a bonafide catch``. The gaze is internalized. To adapt, women may look at themselves through the eyes of heterosexual men. It is well evidenced that the sexualized portrayal of women in advertisements is targeted mainly at male consumers. Media advertising is a business; hence, it is sensitive to the responses and buying patterns of its consumers. Women, who most readily find secure and lucrative advertising roles, fit the western ideal notions of beauty and sexual allure. Constantly portraying women in a highly sexualized way make it more likely all women will be seen as sex objects. This then becomes a human rights issue. In addition, one of the effects is that women readily regulate themselves, striving at sometimes unhealthy and unsafe levels to fit the narrow hegemonic vision of aesthetic beauty. As a result, women expect to be viewed, judged and visually consumed as objects.

For Chinyere Fred‐Adegbukugbe of Nigeria, the issue of negative portrayal of women is quite complex because “most of these women, especially those of them who appear on products that sometimes have absolutely nothing to do with women, see these activities as meal tickets. And because men, especially in this part of the world, have refused to see most women other than as men‐pleasers, one tends to lose the war at both ends”. Judith Williamson (1978) argues that advertising is ideological in the sense that it represents an imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence. Advertising is thus ideological both in the way it functions and in the effects it produces■

Bunny Tawanda Chigudu (2020)

Bachelor of Social Science in Sociology (GZU, Master of Social Sciences (C.F.S, A.U, )


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